Sunday, January 01, 2006

Musings--en Route to an Essay, Perhaps?

In her 1987 essay "Keats and the Use of Poetry," Helen Vendler takes issue with the premises of a question posed by Heidegger: "What is the poet for in a destitute time?" The philosopher, she observes, writes in the nostalgic tones of a nineteeth century crisis of faith, "deprived of theological reassurance, seeing emptiness about him, and longing for presence." There are, however, other ways to stage a Gotterdammerung. Among German philosophers, Vendler cites Nietzsche's "athletic and exulting response to the same moment"; from the poets, she recalls a passage from Wallace Stevens's "Two or Three Ideas," which she quotes at length:
To see the gods dispelled in mid-air and dissolve like clouds is one of the great human experiences. It is not as if they had gone over the horizon to disappear for a time; nor as if they had been overcome by other gods of greater power and profounder knowledge. It is simply that they came to nothing . . . It was their annihilation, not ours, and yet it left us feeling that in a measure, we too had been annihilated . . . At the same time, no man ever muttered a petition in his heart for the restoration of those unreal shapes. There was in every man the increasingly human self, which instead of remaining the observer, the non-participant, the delinquent, became constantly more and more all there was or so it seemed; and whether it was so or merely seemed so still left it for him to resolve life and the world on his own terms.
From Stevens, Vendler pivots to Keats, another "resolute nonbeliever" who triumphed over his own religious nostalgia, and her exemplary instance of the "modern posttheological poet" who explores "the use of secular poetry."

Over the past six months or so--since the question of "Secular Jewish Culture and Radical Poetry" was posed, I suppose--I've kept that passage from Vendler open on my desk. This morning, I realized why. Most of the theoretical discussion I've seen of SJC, and of modern Jewish culture more generally, looks back in reverence to a Tetragrammaton of German (or Germanic) Jewish writers of, roughly speaking, Heidegger's generation: Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin, Kafka, and Freud, or ShBK-F, for short. (A little joke there, folks: the Shin-Bet-Quof root gives us "to leave" and--via "shavak hayyim"--"to die." One of you serious Hebraists will have to tell me what the F is for.) For these writers, at least as they get cited, the modern Jew lives, like Heidegger's poet, in a "desolate time," a time marked by the loss of Torah and Halakhah and the assurance--theological and communal--that these imply. Listen to Norman Finkelstein in The Ritual of New Creation: Jewish Tradition and Contemporary Literature, a foundational text in these matters:
Regardless of what normative Judaism still has to offer, Walter Benjamin's commentary on Kafka remains paradigmatic for all Jewish intellectuals who cannot accept the old ways. "The gate to justice is learning. And yet Kafka does not dare attach to this learning the promises which tradition has attached to the study of Torah. His assistants are sextons who have lost their house of prayer, his students are pupils who have lost their Holy Writ. Now there is nothing to support them on their 'untrammeled, happy journey" (Illuminations, 139).
Rupture, loss, a longing for "halakhic certainty" (81) a "quest for symbolic substitutions for the Law that has gone beyond their grasp" (82): these mark, for Finkelstein, the rocky terrain that modern Jewish poets must traverse, at least in the Diaspora. A terrain that got mapped, and definitively so, evidently, in central Europe somewhere between seven and eight decades ago.

For any number of reasons--of temperament, of national pride, of non-Orthodox religious ideology, of sheer contrarian chutzpah--I have long found this map deeply inadequate. Indeed, my first exchange of letters with Norman Finkelstein, back in the early 1990s, crossed swords with him over just this issue. "You seem to want me to profess some sort of religious belief," he wrote me, or words to that effect. (I don't have the text handy.) "Marx and Freud pretty much took care of that for me some years ago." "William James pretty much took care of Marx and Freud for me," I responded, or something equally glib. But is it really that hard to turn on ShBK-F the same skeptical gaze that Vendler turns on Heidegger: to see in them the same temperamentally and otherwise limited range of response, and to itch for alternatives? Is there no Jewish poetry that evinces an "athletic, exultant" Nietzschean rising to the challenge of a post-theological Jewish culture, or a Keatsian / Stevensian / Emersonian overcoming of nostalgia? Is there no way to reshuffle ShBK-F ("to leave," plus whatever F will be) into SFK-B ("to clap hands, to suffice," plus whatever B will be)?

That's what's on my mind about this whole debate today. Any input from all of you--my dozen faithful readers!--would be very, very appreciated, here or by email.



Anonymous said...

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Norman Finkelstein said...

Dear Eric,

Happy New Year! Great to see you back on the blog.

Since I'm one of the subjects of your latest post, I'm reluctant to say too much in response. Then again, since we do have a history, let me note that the "athletic, exultant" Nietzscheanism which Prof. Vendler poses against Heidegger gives me the willies. Too much muscularity and potential triumphalism there for this diasporic Yid, Eric, so I'll stick to rupture and longing, thanks, not that I can ever shake 'em. Or what Heidegger (no great role model either!) calls Geworfenheit.

Additionally, I don't buy the "overcoming" of nostalgia in Keats or Stevens. They continued to study the nostalgias (as Stevens and Blooms would say) right up to the end. At best, they--and we--can repress the nostalgias for a time. But we all know where that leads...

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